Being Wrong About a Book

Every year around this time I become completely obsessed with the School Library Journal Battle of the Books competition. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a nearly month long contest that rounds up elite children’s/YA authors to judge head-to-head contests between a variety of books ranging from Middle Grade to Non-fiction to YA. The books are assigned to brackets, and one book from each bracket is eliminated, the other advancing to the next round and so forth until the final battle.

In the most recent contest, the judge expressed a fear of being wrong about a book. She was worried that after reading both books she’d pick the one that was less deserving or overlook something in the “losing” book that ends up being hailed as the greatest children’s book of all time. (A slight exaggeration, but you get my meaning.) In this age of Social Media where we are all so involved in the conversation, the fear of making that wrong choice is even greater.

Being a regular reviewer for a local Canadian Children’s Book Review periodical and having sat on a number of awards committees myself, picking the wrong book is a fear I can totally identify with. I’ve been in this industry for over 15 years, and been a buyer for 10. I like to think I have a pretty good eye and a solid instinct for good books, but the one lesson I’ve learned over the years is that books are incredibly subjective. Even knowing that, it’s hard not to doubt your opinion when that book that you eliminated or passed over is universally loved by just about everybody else on the planet. I read it. I carefully evaluated it, but I didn’t choose it or even necessarily like it. There’s no rule that says I have to like every critically acclaimed or buzzy book (often I don’t), but that doubt grows even bigger when said book wins not just one, but multiple awards, and makes all of the best books of the year lists, etc…You start to wonder- what didn’t I see in this book?

I have often been in the minority of disliking something that the rest of the members on my committee ranks highly, and vice-versa. I’ve often championed something that isn’t the recipient of the love such as Daniel Kraus’ Life and Death of Zebulon Finch which didn’t get nearly the attention I thought it deserved. When I first started developing collections 10 years ago, my boss kindly told me that being that I lack a crystal ball that tells me absolutely what reaction a book will garner, I can’t second guess myself. Best-seller or bust, there is never an absolutely right or absolutely wrong choice, and that is the beauty of not only books, but any art form.

2 Responses to Being Wrong About a Book

  1. Peter Taylor Mar 30 2016 at 6:18 am #

    I’m writing from Australia and unfamiliar with this judging process, but it sounds fascinating – thank you for the article and insight.

    This is therefore not a comment on your process and criteria, or any particular award, but on occasions I have looked at a new children’s book and decided that will probably gain acclaim somewhere in the world by adult award judges because it looks wonderful, it’s literary, fantastically designed with exemplary production values, perfect for class discussion …but I doubt that most children will enjoy reading it or ask for it to be read to them more than once. (But I have been wrong from time to time.) If purchased for the child by an adult friend/relative, as a gift, I think the book in question will be glanced at and shelved indefinitely. I do believe that children’s books selected for awards should at least have a degree of popularity with the target readership. But I don’t know how that’s achieved. There have been plenty of awarded books that have not sold well. I think the Bologna Award has occasionally had the same problem. One award winning pop-up book I saw there a number of years ago was so fragile that it would have been destroyed by a child handling it before a word was read. But it was cleverly produced and the text may have been wonderful. Who do we want to take notice of our awarded book lists, and shortlists? Mainly teachers and librarians who know what will be an unforgettable experience for a child: good medicine and a talking point, whether it’s enjoyed or not? I don’t believe we should award the industry for creating books that are unsuitable to be promoted as perfect books for parents to buy for their children, most of whom will be eternally grateful. For these reasons, awards judged only on literary merit and production value have a danger of being irrelevant to the ‘general population’ and not worth publicising through the media and book stores. Maybe these kinds of awards are best kept for insiders only.

  2. Leslie Tall Manning Mar 30 2016 at 4:24 pm #

    Thank you for this article.
    I agree with not always jumping on the bandwagon with the masses when it comes to likes or dislikes. As a private English tutor, I have to be careful not to share too many of my “dislike” ideas with my students! But I do try to get them, in their own words, to critique what they have read. Even if they don’t like a book, as long as they can explain why, then I am happy. Critical thinking and supporting ideas are always important, whether positive or negative viewpoints.
    Beauty is in the eye…
    ; )

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